NCF Nation: Shamarko Thomas

The first round of the NFL draft is just a week away, so it is time to provide you an update with the latest predictions, mock drafts and rankings from ESPN experts.

First, let us start with Mel Kiper Jr., who plays general manager for every single team and predicts the first three rounds of the draft Insider. It is Insider content, but here is a look at where he has placed players from ACC schools. Oh, and be sure to read his ground rules to have a better understanding of his thought process.

First round
Second round
Third round

As Kiper Jr. states, that piece is not a mock draft. It's his preference for each team at that spot. His mock draft features Cooper, Williams and Rhodes. Disagree with his first-round picks? Well you can make your own mock draft Insider. Two thumbs up on that tool.

Kiper also has updated his Big Board Insider, ranking the Top 25 prospects. Only Cooper and Williams make that list.

Meanwhile, ESPN draft expert Todd McShay has revealed the Scouts Inc. tier rankings Insider, which list prospects by their ratings. There are seven tiers and 109 players rated, with 17 from ACC schools (counting incoming members Pittsburgh and Syracuse).

McShay also has named his All-Satellite team Insider, comprised of the best prospects when playing in space. North Carolina running back Giovani Bernard checks in at No. 5. McShay writes, "He has super-quick feet, good initial burst and outstanding lateral agility. Bernard can stop and start on a dime, strings together multiple moves and is a slippery runner between the tackles."

Want more? Kiper also has updated his top 5 prospects by position Insider.

ACC at the combine

February, 27, 2013
The poking, prodding, interviews and drills have wrapped up at the NFL combine in Indianapolis. Now let's take a quick look at who stood out from the ACC during the all-important event.

  • The defensive backs were the last group to go, wrapping up Tuesday. And there were some pretty good performances. Miami cornerback Brandon McGee posted one of the fastest 40 times at the combine, running a 4.40 to rank him No. 13 among all participants. He also was a top performer in the bench press and 20-yard shuttle run. Those numbers will not do anything but help his draft stock.
  • [+] EnlargeDavid Amerson
    AP Photo/Dave MartinNC State cornerback David Amerson showed off his speed at the NFL combine, clocking a 4.44 in the 40-yard dash.
  • NC State cornerback David Amerson was out to prove himself at the combine after an up-and-down 2012 season. He definitely opened eyes with his performance, which NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock described as "excellent." Amerson ran a 4.44 in the 40 and was also a top performer in the vertical jump.
  • Those two guys were not the only fast defensive backs at the combine. Of the players with the top 15 times at the position, six have ACC ties. Rod Sweeting of Georgia Tech (4.42), Shamarko Thomas of Syracuse (4.42), Xavier Rhodes of Florida State (4.43) and Earl Wolff of NC State (4.44) were among the fastest.
  • Speaking of Rhodes, his vertical leap was incredibly impressive, at 40.5 inches to tie for first among all defensive backs and rank No. 3 overall. He also was a top performer in the broad jump, and certainly helped himself with his day. So did Thomas, one of the most underrated players in college football last year. Though Thomas made some headlines after he fell at the end of his 40, he had a huge day. He also leaped 40.5 inches and was a top performer in the 20-yard shuttle and broad jump.
  • The ACC had several top performers in the bench press as well. Wake Forest fullback Tommy Bohanon tied for No. 4 overall with 36 reps and was also a top performer in the vertical jump and 60-yard shuttle. Also in the top 15 overall for bench: North Carolina guard Jonathan Cooper (35), NC State guard Zach Allen (32) and Virginia Tech offensive tackle Vinston Painter (32). Speaking of Cooper, ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay said the lineman "had one of the more impressive workouts."
  • Florida State quarterback EJ Manuel had a nice combine himself, though he was inconsistent with his throws. Manuel was a top performer in the broad jump, ranking No. 3 among all quarterbacks after jumping 9 feet, 10 inches. He also was a top performer in the 40 (4.65), vertical jump (34), 3-cone drill (7.08) and 20-yard shuttle (4.21) to rank among the top 5 in each category.
  • The folks at Scouts Inc. had this to say about Clemson receiver DeAndre Hopkins, a top performer at his position in the bench press and vertical jump (36): "His 4.57 in the 40 is about what we expected. His game is more about being physical, though, and Hopkins showed good ball skills. He is was one of the most natural pass-catchers on the field, with good focus in the gauntlet drill and the ability to extend fully for balls." He's got a second-round grade.
  • Virginia Tech receiver Marcus Davis put up some good numbers as well, topping his position with a vertical jump of 39.5 inches, while also posting good numbers in the 40 (4.56) and bench press (19 reps). It's never been about physical talent for Davis, so the numbers aren't much of a surprise. He has to put it all together on the field.
  • Now for running back: North Carolina's Giovani Bernard was a top performer in various categories. He ran a 4.53 in the 40; and was a top performer in the 20-yard shuttle and 60-yard shuttle. Miami running back Mike James also put up some good numbers.
Brace yourselves.

This is not the ACC power rankings you are used to. It is bigger. Let’s hope it’s not badder. The first version of the 2013 ACC power rankings reflects the addition of Pittsburgh Panthers and Syracuse Orange. There are 14 teams here (and Boston College is still last). Welcome to the league, Pitt and Cuse.

There are still plenty of questions for several teams that have players still undecided about their NFL careers, but this is your first take on a ranking likely to change many times between now and the opening kickoff. Lots can happen (and does) during signing day, spring ball and summer camp, but here is how Andrea Adelson and I think the ACC will shape up this fall based on what we know now:

1. Clemson -- With quarterback Tajh Boyd and offensive coordinator Chad Morris working together again, the Tigers would have the best coordinator/quarterback combo returning in the ACC. The defense should take another step forward in the second season under coordinator Brent Venables, and the Chick-fil-A Bowl victory over LSU was a monumental springboard for the program heading into the offseason.

2. Florida State -- The Seminoles will be going through a transition, as coach Jimbo Fisher has to replace at least five assistants on his staff, as well as starting quarterback EJ Manuel. With several players, including defensive end Bjoern Werner, leaving early for the NFL draft, the Noles will have to reload.

3. Miami -- The Hurricanes hoped their self-imposed bowl ban was a preemptive strike against NCAA sanctions. With quarterback Stephen Morris returning, along with ACC Rookie of the Year Duke Johnson and what could be one of the best offensive lines in the ACC, expectations should be much higher for the Canes in Year 3 under Al Golden.

4. Georgia Tech -- The Yellow Jackets will have some momentum and confidence to build on after their bowl win over USC, but more importantly, they’ve got an experienced, talented roster to work with. Georgia Tech will have eight starters back on a defense that made measurable progress in the second half of the season.

5. UNC -- Coach Larry Fedora is going to have to work some magic in trying to replace leading rusher/returner Giovani Bernard, who left early for the NFL, and his lead blocker, Jonathan Cooper. Quarterback Bryn Renner will be a senior, though, and the Tar Heels have other talented running backs waiting in the wings.

6. Pitt -- The moment every Pitt fan has been waiting for -- Tino Sunseri will no longer be the starting quarterback in 2013. Does that mean the position gets an automatic upgrade? Promising running back Rushel Shell returns, and Pitt's defense should be much better, but questions remain on the offensive line.

7. Virginia Tech -- The school has yet to announce any staff changes, quarterback Logan Thomas has yet to announce whether or not he is returning for his senior season, and the Hokies open the schedule against national champion Alabama. Doesn’t look good.

8. Syracuse -- Major questions surround the Orange now that coach Doug Marrone has left for the Buffalo Bills. This is a team that already had to replace starting quarterback Ryan Nassib, all-Big East tackle Justin Pugh, record-setting receiver Alec Lemon and leading tackler Shamarko Thomas. But Syracuse does have 1,000-yard rusher Jerome Smith returning, along with linebackers Marquis Spruill and Dyshawn Davis. Many questions must be answered before 2013 begins.

9. Maryland -- It can only get better, right? Maryland was down to its fifth-string quarterback last year, linebacker Shawn Petty. Starter C.J. Brown should be ready to return to the starting lineup this summer and healed from a torn ACL. The defense has some big shoes to fill, but the Terps should have enough experience to be bowl bound in their final season in the ACC.

10. Wake Forest -- The Deacs were thrown off track last season by injuries and suspensions and should be a better team this year. Quarterback Tanner Price returns for his senior season, along with receiver Michael Campanaro, who should be one of the best in the ACC if he can stay healthy.

11. Duke -- The Blue Devils have to replace quarterback Sean Renfree and his top target, ACC record-setting receiver, Conner Vernon. Duke went to its first bowl game since 1994, but the program still has something to prove after losing its last five games of the season. The Coastal Division should collectively be stronger this year.

12. Virginia -- Phillip Sims will take over at quarterback after the transfer of Michael Rocco, but how much time will David Watford see under center? The hires of Tom O’Brien and Jon Tenuta were smart moves, but the staff will have to find a way to extract more out of many of the same players who struggled last year.

13. NC State -- Quarterback Mike Glennon is out, and first-year coach Dave Doeren is in. The Wolfpack will have an entirely different look this fall, and some bumps in the road should be expected as the program begins a new era under Doeren.

14. Boston College -- The Eagles have lots of work to do under first-year coach Steve Addazio. It all starts with recruiting, but the staff is also going to have to find a way to improve the running game and get the defense back to its stingy ways.

New Era Pinstripe Bowl keys

December, 29, 2012
Here are three keys for Syracuse in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl:

1. Establish the run. What better way for Syracuse to keep West Virginia off the field than with its running game? It has been outstanding in the latter half of the season. Syracuse averaged 127.5 yards on the ground in the first six games of the year. In the last six games? The Orange averaged 216.2 yards rushing. It is no coincidence that Syracuse went 5-1 in its final six games, then. The bulk of the carries should go to Jerome Smith, who hit 1,000 yards this season, and Prince-Tyson Gulley as Adonis Ameen-Moore is serving a suspension for this game.

2. Get after Geno Smith. Syracuse has done a terrific job harassing Smith in the past two games the teams played, both Orange victories. They were so successful, in fact, that a Big 12 reporter got on the Big East coaches' call earlier this year and asked Syracuse coach Doug Marrone how they were able to slow down Smith so effectively. Marrone politely declined to answer at the time. But there is no doubt the game plan is going to remain the same going into this game. Containing Smith takes away a large part of what the Mountaineers do on offense.

3. Lock down Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey. Easier said than done, right? Austin and Bailey were outstanding once again this season -- Austin finished No. 2 in the nation in all-purpose yards with 2,760, and Bailey led the nation with 23 receiving touchdowns and was a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award. Syracuse has had its share of problems on special teams, particularly on covering punts, so this is going to have to be a major point of emphasis to make sure Austin doesn't burn the Orange there. Syracuse cornerbacks Keon Lyn and Ri'Shard Anderson are going to have their hands full, but you can bet Syracuse also will rely on the sure-handed tackling of Shamarko Thomas to help wrap these guys up so they can contain yards after the catch. All-Big East team

December, 10, 2012
The time has finally come to announce our picks for the All-Big East team.

You will see that only a few selections differ from the coaches'; they made their first- and second-team selections last week. Among the notable differences: I have Cincinnati running back George Winn on the first team ahead of Pitt running back Ray Graham. I thought Graham was great this year in his return from a torn ACL. But I thought Winn was better and more consistent. He also had more total yards rushing (1,204 to 1,042 for Graham), a higher rushing average (5.3 ypc to 4.7 ypc) and more 100-yard games.

I also have Pitt receiver Devin Street on the first team over DeVante Parker from Louisville. Parker had some flashy catches this year, but Street was way more productive and consistent. I actually went back and forth between Street and teammate Mike Shanahan for first-team honors. Both are worthy.

Defensively, I only have three linebackers on my team (no ties allowed!) so Sio Moore of UConn gets bumped. Moore had a heck of a year, no question, and linebacker was perhaps the strongest position in the league across every team. But I thought Yawin Smallwood, Greg Blair and Khaseem Greene were better. I also have Calvin Pryor at safety over Duron Harmon.

Here is the team in its entirety:


QB: Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville

RB: Montel Harris, Temple

RB: George Winn, Cincinnati

WR: Alec Lemon, Syracuse

WR: Devin Street, Pitt

TE: Travis Kelce, Cincinnati

OT: Eric Lefeld, Cincinnati

OT: Justin Pugh, Syracuse

C: Mario Benavides, Louisville

OG: Austen Bujnoch, Cincinnati

OG: Antwan Lowery, Rutgers

K: Brandon McManus, Temple

RS: Matt Brown, Temple


DE: Trevardo Williams, UConn

DE: Dan Giordano, Cincinnati

DT: Scott Vallone, Rutgers

DT: Aaron Donald, Pitt

LB: Greg Blair, Cincinnati

LB: Yawin Smallwood, UConn

LB: Khaseem Greene, Rutgers

CB: Adrian Bushell, Louisville

CB: Logan Ryan, Rutgers

S: Shamarko Thomas, Syracuse

S: Calvin Pryor, Louisville

P: Brandon McManus, Temple

SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Louisville coach Charlie Strong came out of the visiting locker room with his head down and opened with a brutally honest assessment of what happened Saturday afternoon.

“I am very embarrassed today for our program,” Strong said.

No. 9 Louisville came into its game against Syracuse with almost every college football observer in the nation wondering whether the Cardinals were for real. They got no love in the polls, no love from the computers, and no love in the BCS standings as one of six unbeaten teams headed into the weekend.

The only way to shut up the doubters? To put together a complete effort in front of a national television audience Saturday afternoon and inch ever so slightly toward a perfect season.

Instead, Louisville put together its most incomplete effort of the season in a 45-26 loss, in what amounted to a completely inexplicable performance from the conference flag-bearer.

Now the Big East is left with zero unbeaten teams, and no more relevance in the national conversation. It was lost on nobody that the team that delivered the beatdown is headed out of the league and into the waiting arms of the ACC.

On the bright side, it's hard to imagine the Big East taking a huge hit to its image, given how little pundits think of this league. Going into this game, virtually everybody put Louisville on upset alert, so that should tell you that almost everyone thought Saturday's end result was inevitable.

The proof was there: Louisville hung on by a thread in every game this year, trailing at various points of nearly every contest. But this team had a resilience nobody else in the league showed. Louisville found a way to get to 9-0 -- its best start in school history.

The hot start was good for the Big East, despite nobody embracing this team. And yes, this season seemed to be shaping up differently for the much-maligned conference.

Remember, the story at the midseason point was three unbeaten teams carrying the conversation. Now, much has reverted to form around these parts. There is nobody strong enough to avoid an upset at the hands of (1) a losing team or (2) a team from the MAC.

There are easy explanations for what happened against the Orange, and it had nothing to do with luck running out. Louisville was outcoached and outplayed. Simple.

The Cardinals had their worst defensive performance under Strong. The last time the Cardinals gave up this many points, Steve Kragthorpe was the coach and Louisville lost to Rutgers 63-14 to close out the 2008 season.

You name it, and, well, it went wrong. Louisville could not contain Syracuse receiver Alec Lemon, who ended up with 176 yards receiving and two touchdowns. Louisville could not stop the run, giving up 278 yards on the ground. Louisville got absolutely no pressure up front. Oh, and did we mention the missed tackles?

“The flaws really showed up today,” Strong said. “But you come on the road and you are going to get flaws. You have to be prepared. No. 1, you have to pack your defense. We didn’t pack our defense today. You have to pack your special teams. We didn’t pack our special teams. It’s discipline. We weren’t a very disciplined football team today. What happens -- you come into an environment like this and lose a game.”

The offense wasn't exactly rockin’ and rollin’ out there, either. The run game was nonexistent once the Cardinals lost leading rusher Senorise Perry to a leg injury on the opening drive. After trailing 31-10 in the second quarter, Louisville had to abandon its game plan and just fling it on every down. But even then, Teddy Bridgewater had difficulty finding his most reliable targets, because Syracuse just took them all away.

“We felt like we knew what they were going to do on each and every down,” Syracuse safety Shamarko Thomas said. “We knew if we stayed attached to the receivers and Teddy Bridgewater didn’t have anybody to throw to, he’d have to throw it out of bounds.”

None of this is to take away from what Syracuse did on senior day. The Orange had the perfect game plan, and worked hard to control every aspect. They did just that, winning everywhere: offense, defense, special teams, the turnover battle, time of possession, third-down conversions, scoreboard.

Syracuse now stands one win away from becoming bowl-eligible. All that “hot seat” talk about Doug Marrone should be firmly put to rest. The man has now led his team to upset wins against highly ranked unbeaten squads two years in a row.

For Louisville, the disappointment cannot last long. The anger in the postgame locker room must turn to focus and motivation. Despite the loss, Louisville can still clinch a Big East title and a BCS appearance. Perhaps it was hard to really see that glimmer of hope after its unbeaten season was dashed.

But two more wins get the Cardinals to the same place they would be had they won out.

“When you’re winning every game and you’re undefeated, each game gets bigger and bigger regardless of who you’re playing, because you’re getting close to that undefeated season,” center Mario Benavides said. “Being undefeated was never our main goal. Our main goal is to win the Big East, and we can still do that.”

Greetings from the Carrier Dome

November, 10, 2012
SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Hello from the Carrier Dome, where most everybody expects No. 9 Louisville to face a tough challenge from Syracuse.

One of the big themes this week has been how much better Syracuse has played at home -- going 3-1 in the Dome this season. Its only loss here was in the opener against Northwestern, a heartbreaking 42-41 decision that was decided in the closing minutes.

But here is another point to remember: Louisville has done well on the road this season, going 3-0 away from home. More than that, the Cardinals have won six straight regular-season road games dating to last season. Now, none of that is to say the Cardinals are going to have a cakewalk. Those who have paid close attention know Louisville has had its share of road drama this season, needing second-half comebacks to beat Southern Miss and Pitt.

In fact, Louisville has fallen behind in all three of its road games this season, getting outscored 52-43 in the first half. But pay particular attention to the third quarter: Louisville has shut out its opposition 31-0 in that period in its three road games. For some of its warts, this Louisville team is one that simply never quits.

You can definitely bet Syracuse will not be intimidated facing one of the top-ranked teams in the nation. Back in Week 2, the Orange took No. 2 USC down to the wire, playing with the Trojans for three quarters before ultimately losing 42-29. I mentioned the loss to No. 24 Northwestern. And they also hung with then-No. 20 Rutgers a few weeks ago, before losing 23-15.

Plus, there is plenty on the line for the Orange. A win allows them to keep their bowl hopes alive. If they lose, they would need to beat both Missouri and Temple to become bowl-eligible. This is also senior day, so that could be an extra source of motivation. Ryan Nassib has had huge games in the Dome, and this is his final performance at home, along with starters Zack Chibane, Siriki Diabate, Alec Lemon, Deon Goggins, Marcus Sales, Brandon Sharpe and Shamarko Thomas.

How's that for a bounce-back performance?

A week after turning it over four times and ruining an upset chance on the road, Syracuse connected on all cylinders Friday night, riding a 100-yard receiver, a 100-yard rusher and a quarterback who was nearly flawless to victory in a 40-10 rout of Connecticut.

Not the happiest of homecomings for Paul Pasqualoni.

The Huskies' defense entered the Carrier Dome ranked sixth in the nation, but it had no answer for an Orange team that rattled off the game's final 27 points, including a 20-0 second-half shutout.

Ryan Nassib got to call it a day early after completing 14 of 20 passes for 251 yards with two touchdowns and no turnovers, adding 20 rushing yards on six carries. Jerome Smith ran for 133 yards on just 19 carries, and Alec Lemon was all over the field, catching eight passes for 166 yards, including an 11-yard touchdown grab late in the third quarter that made it 37-10.

UConn's offense was predictably stagnant, totaling negative-6 rushing yards on the night. Lyle McCombs played but managed just 17 yards on 11 carries. In a rather fitting play to cap the contest, Chandler Whitmer was picked off in front of the goal line by Shamarko Thomas, who then danced around and wasted 17 seconds before finally getting tackled deep in UConn territory with 54 seconds remaining. Whitmer was assessed a personal foul on the return as well.

That was the only throw that Whitmer had picked off, and it marked just the fourth interception of the season recorded by Syracuse. Whitmer completed 23 of 41 passes for 291 yards and a touchdown. That score was a 32-yard second-quarter toss to Ryan Griffin that cut the lead to 13-10, but it was all Syracuse from that point forward.

You can't ask for much more than what Syracuse showed in another Friday-night home victory, its second this season. The Orange are now 2-1 in Big East play, getting a win they desperately needed if they want to go bowling for the first time in two years. The forecast is not so bright for the Huskies, who have dropped three consecutive games to open conference play and will have a bye week to try to gather themselves.

An offense averaging just 9 points per Big East contest will get plenty of dissection, but on Friday night it was the defense that let UConn down.

Big East offseason to-do lists

January, 20, 2012
Every team has plenty to do in the offseason. Today, I present to you my top priorities for each Big East program headed into the 2012 season.

  • Settle on a quarterback. If 2011 was any indication, then Munchie Legaux seems a sure bet to start next season. He showed flashes, but he needs to spend the bulk of his offseason developing a nice rhythm and chemistry with his receivers. That was one of the biggest roadblocks for him when he took over for Zach Collaros. Cincinnati has some good talent at receiver -- with Anthony McClung, Kenbrell Thompkins and Alex Chisum coming back -- so this must be a top priority.
  • Develop senior leadership. The Bearcats are losing the best senior class in school history, filled with leaders left and right. With guys such as Collaros, Isaiah Pead and JK Schaffer gone, who is going to take the responsibility of leading this team? That is something that must be worked on throughout the offseason.
  • Find a quarterback. Sounds the same as last season, right? The Huskies never really found one in 2011 and that is a big reason why they struggled. Spring practice has the potential to have five different quarterbacks taking reps in Johnny McEntee, Scott McCummings, Michael Nebrich, Chandler Whitmer and Casey Cochran. Somebody has to emerge to take a hold of this offense.
  • Work on improving the secondary. The weakest part of this team last season ranked No. 113 in the nation, so this is a clear area that has to get better. The Huskies were hurt when starting cornerback Blidi Wreh-Wilson missed a good chunk of the season with a knee injury, and they also had to rely on freshmen in Byron Jones and Ty-Meer Brown. This group will be much more experienced, so you have to hope they will be much better, too.
  • Mature. The Cardinals were one of the youngest teams in the nation last season, and their immaturity showed at times. But now they enter the offseason with exceedingly high expectations. Many preseason lists have them ranked in the Top 25 and challenging for the Big East title. This team will still be young in 2012, so it will be imperative for coach Charlie Strong to help get this group to mature quickly and stay focused.
  • Work on the run game. Strong wants the run game to be the bread-and-butter of the offense, and this was an area that took a step back in 2011 with Bilal Powell gone. Louisville went from being ranked No. 1 in the Big East to No. 5 in the Big East, averaging 121.5 yards per game. That is down over 50 yards per game. Dominique Brown and Jeremy Wright are back, but they have to be consistent and the Cardinals probably need somebody else to emerge.
  • New identity. A new coach means a new identity, so it will be interesting to see how the Panthers look under Paul Chryst and his new staff. We will find out when spring practice opens in March. There is plenty of talent on the roster, but the big question is how will the talent be utilized?
  • Is Tino the man? This is starting to sound like a trend, right? The Panthers have quarterback issues as well after Tino Sunseri had a season to forget. Much of his performance can probably be laid at the feet of former coach Todd Graham, who stubbornly tried to run an offensive system that was not suited for the players he had. You can be sure Chryst will open up the quarterback competition to see who emerges.
  • Handle expectations. The Scarlet Knights have not been so good in the past when the pressure is on. All you have to do is look back at what happened this season, with a shot to win a share of the Big East title. Now they are getting some preseason love and probably have their best team since 2006. So coach Greg Schiano is going to have to do a good job of managing preparation and focus because expectations were raised off a successful 2011 campaign.
  • Quarterback derby. Yet another Big East team with a quarterback question mark. Chas Dodd and Gary Nova ended up splitting the starts this past season. Now there is the possibility that former quarterback Tom Savage transfers back in. I don't know if Schiano can afford to keep playing musical chairs with his quarterbacks every season.
  • Re-focus. The Bulls have to put 2011 behind them and focus on the future. This is still a team that has the talent to win. Coach Skip Holtz has to find a way to get that done. This is going to be a veteran team that has been through good times and bad. He needs leaders who will their teammates to victory, who know how to win close games and are determined to get this team back on top. Who are they?
  • New defense. USF brings in new defensive coordinator Chris Cosh from Kansas State, its third different coordinator in the past four years. Getting the players adapted to his scheme as soon as possible has to be a point of emphasis in the spring and throughout the offseason.
  • More offensive consistency. To be sure, Ryan Nassib and Alec Lemon both had career years and made strides for the Orange. But a lot of that was because the run game was inconsistent, and Syracuse found itself trailing late in several games. This team has to find a way to sustain drives and score -- Syracuse was No. 7 in the Big East in scoring offense (24.2 ppg).
  • Shore up the defense. The Orange lose some of their best players on the defensive line, and have to get better in the secondary, which was a major problem for most of the year. Syracuse ranked No. 98 in the nation in pass defense, and they lose some key contributors. Shamarko Thomas is really going to have to step up and take control of this group.
West Virginia
  • Big 12 or Big East? The Mountaineers are bent on leaving for the Big 12, regardless of any court outcomes. On-field issues have nothing on trying to figure out where you are going to be playing. And who you are going to be playing.
  • Defense. Coach Dana Holgorsen has hired a few defensive assistants, but still no word yet on who is going to run the show. That, of course, will determine the future course of this defense. It appears an inevitability that they will no longer use the 3-3-5 that former coordinator Jeff Casteel ran. Plus, players such as Keith Tandy, Najee Goode, Bruce Irvin and Julian Miller are gone. Shoring up this unit has to be tops on Holgorsen's list.

Syracuse to get a history lesson

October, 4, 2011
Syracuse coach Doug Marrone was still smarting over his team's loss to Rutgers on Monday, because he felt his team simply gave the game away.

Turnovers and special teams mistakes really did the Orange in. But his main focus headed into Saturday's game against Tulane is to make sure one loss doesn't turn into two. So he is going to give his team a little history lesson this week, complete with examples from famous people who perfected the art of perseverance.

"People like Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein and all the failure they've had in their past and how they succeeded by working hard, keeping their level of focus," Marrone said. "[We'll] give them some more stuff they can relate to a little bit more with the NFL and players that might have been undrafted that became starters in the league, or teams that didn't perform well to a certain point then all of a sudden the level of focus went up. So basically trying to work on making sure our kids' minds are in the right place and to work extremely hard with a high level of focus."

Opening the pages of a history book might help, but the loss itself could serve as motivation as well. After the game, quarterback Ryan Nassib said the offense was humbled because of the way Rutgers forced them out of their comfort zone. Antwon Bailey ended up fumbling in overtime to give Rutgers the win. During his postgame news conference, the entire offensive line stood behind him as a sign of solidarity.

"Our kids are out there trying," Marrone said. "They're not trying to make mistakes. It goes to show you the type of communication and the type of accountability that they have and how we rely on one another."

If there was one bright spot in the loss, it was the defense. Despite missing several veterans and starters, Syracuse's defense played its best game of the season, forcing four turnovers and giving up 302 yards of total offense. Dyshawn Davis had an incredible game, with two sacks, 3.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble. Marrone also spoke highly of Cameron Lynch and Siriki Diabate. He also is hopeful starting safety Shamarko Thomas and backup Olando Fisher will be back this week. Defensive end Chandler Jones has been cleared for limited practice, but won't play this week.

"Defensively, we played well enough to win the game," Marrone said. "We had some younger kids that were playing and stepped up, made some good decisions on packages for the players. ... It feels good to know the younger players are getting better. Were playing faster, that's the one thing you see. Defensively, that's what you want."

Rutgers WR Mohamed Sanu turns it up

September, 30, 2011
Hard as it may seem, Mohamed Sanu went into the season a little bit overshadowed.

Mark Harrison had a standout season last year. Brandon Coleman was the talk of the spring. Tim Wright got some buzz as he returned from a knee injury.

Sanu? Just a part of a talented receiving corps.

Then the games kicked off. Now we know Sanu is not just a part of the group -- he is the best player in the group. And it's not even close.

[+] EnlargeMohamed Sanu
Jim O'Connor/US PresswireMohamed Sanu has had a phenomenal start to the season, catching 36 passess for 363 yards and four touchdowns.
Sanu goes into Saturday's conference opener against Syracuse off the most productive game in league history. Sanu caught a league-record 16 passes against Ohio last week, following up on his 13-reception game at North Carolina.

He has 36 receptions for 363 yards on the season -- nearly half of Rutgers' team total of 62. He leads the nation in receptions per game and is No. 8 in receiving yards per game (121). And he has four of Rutgers' seven receiving touchdowns.

Two major factors have contributed to his early success: He is completely healthy and completely focused on receiver.

"Everybody has a guy that has special talents. That's Mohamed," coach Greg Schiano said. "Because of that, we needed to use him in the Wildcat because we felt that was the only way to run the football effectively. This year, he's back at his natural position and he's doing a fine job."

Sanu said he has focused on his technique and trusted his training so far this year. But he did not really set any goals for himself for this season.

"I just came into the season open minded," Sanu said. "I wasn’t sure what I was going to do or how I was going to do it. I'm just trying to play well each and every game."

Asked for his thoughts on leading the NCAA in receptions, Sanu said, "I don’t really pay attention to any of that stuff. I'm just trying to help my team win. If that’s how we’ve got to do it, I’m just going to embrace my role and continue to play at a high level."

Certainly Schiano would like some of his other receivers to step up. Fullback Joe Martinek is the next closest to Sanu with five receptions. Harrison and Coleman have three each. Wright has four.

They could get an opportunity against the Orange, who have had their share of struggles against the pass. Syracuse has given up 10 passing touchdowns -- second worst in the nation. The Orange rank No. 91 in pass efficiency defense and No. 106 in passing defense.

Both Wake Forest and USC threw for over 300 yards against Syracuse. Two receivers -- Chris Givens of Wake Forest (seven catches, 170 yards, 2 touchdowns) and Eric Page of Toledo (13 catches, 148 yards) -- notched 100-yard games this season as well. Syracuse also had to defend USC receiver Robert Woods.

But Syracuse has been dealing with injuries to several of its top players in the secondary. Keon Lyn, Ri'Shard Anderson, Olando Fisher and Shamarko Thomas all have been hobbled. Coach Doug Marrone closed practice this week, and it is unknown who will be able to go on defense.

You can bet whoever is out there will be focused on Sanu.

"He's one of the better athletes -- if not the best athlete on the field," Marrone said. "He can make every catch, he can run all the different routes -- short game, intermediate, down the field. The line does a great job of protecting. This has been a recurring theme for us. We had Woods, we had Page. Now we have Sanu."

Big East news and notes

August, 29, 2011
The Big East football coaches' call wrapped up a little bit ago. UConn coach Paul Pasqualoni was the only coach unable to make it because of disruptions from Hurricane Irene. Here are some news and notes from each coach:

  • Coach Butch Jones confirmed that he has hired former West Virginia offensive line coach Dave Johnson as an assistant.
  • He also said Deven Drane is going to start at cornerback, with Dominique Battle right behind him. Jones also anticipates playing eight true freshmen.
  • On the makeup of the team this season: “I like the mentality of our football team. We’ve improved our toughness and mental state of mind.”
  • Coach Charlie Strong confirmed former Florida cornerback Adrian Bushell has enrolled in school. Bushell played at Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College last season and has only been on campus for two days, so it will take time for him to get up to speed before he can contribute.
  • Strong also said center Mario Benavides, defensive end B.J. Butler and freshman running back Corvin Lamb are out with injuries.
  • The Cardinals also plan on playing all three quarterbacks against Murray State on Thursday. Will Stein will start, but Teddy Bridgewater and Dominique Brown will get in as well.
  • The only player out for the game is linebacker Dan Mason.
  • What is Todd Graham most eager to see about this team? “How we handle adversity. I’m anxious to see them get on the field and execute what we’re doing. I feel good about where we’re at. We’ve got an awful lot taught. I'm anxious to see how they respond and get them on the field in game day. I've told them I expect them to be better on game day than they were in the spring and summer.”
  • At his news conference in Pittsburgh, Graham said walk-on freshman Trey Anderson would be the backup at quarterback and Shane Gordon would start at strongside linebacker.
  • Greg Schiano on playing N.C. Central: “I’m not worried about our team overlooking anybody. If you know about the type of season we had last year, we underachieved. We didn’t meet expectations and our entire program can’t wait to play a football game.”
  • Schiano says running back Jeremy Deering should be able to play after missing practice time with a head injury. As for his running back rotation between Savon Huggins, DeAntwan Williams and Jawan Jamison, Schiano said, “Savon is definitely going to play. Depending on what we run the first play of the game, will it be Savon, DeAntwan Williams or Jawan Jamison? I don’t know how it’s going to go. Savon has done a good job in training camp. He’s shown why he is the player that he is. He’s a talented guy, very mature and worked hard to get ready.”
  • Coach Doug Marrone said Phillip Thomas and Shamarko Thomas, and cornerback Keon Lyn are back at practice and would be able to play against Wake Forest on Thursday night.
  • Marrone threw out some stats in his opening remarks. Syracuse is 1-12 against ACC teams since 1996, including 0-8 at home.
  • He also addressed some of the problems with winning home games. Syracuse has not had a winning home record since 2004. The main thing is eliminating the distractions that come with playing at home.
  • Skip Holtz talked a lot about the excitement of playing Notre Dame for his players, and the campus as well. Holtz spoke at a pep rally on campus and felt a buzz around the students, too. “There is a lot of excitement,” he said. “It's fed by not only the way we finished the season last year, but the excitement to play Notre Dame on national television. These are big games for us.”
  • Holtz also said he didn’t expect any players to sit out with injuries.
West Virginia
  • Dana Holgorsen still has not decided on a running back rotation, but said all three freshmen -- Vernard Roberts, Andrew Buie and Dustin Garrison will play Sunday against Marshall.
  • On why he doesn’t use a playbook: “The thought process is we don't want people staring at a piece of paper. We want them to understand it based on film, seeing how it's done right, how it's done wrong and doing it trial and error on your own. We put together a few mini-playbook stuff that's video related. It makes more sense to us."
  • Holgorsen also said Pat Eger is leading the race to start at right tackle. Quinton Spain is the backup to both tackles. He also expects Julian Miller to be cleared for Marshall.
  • On Bruce Irvin being an every-down player: “Whether he can be every down as good as he is on specific pass-rush things, I don't know. Time will tell. He set the bar pretty high being a third-down pass-rusher.”

Big East practice report

August, 16, 2011
Taking a look at practice around the league:

Cincinnati: Several freshmen have already impressed their teammates. One tradition during fall camp is for the young players to lose the stripes on their helmets when their "big brother" on the team feels they've earned it. On Monday, defensive back Trenier Orr had his stripe removed by Camerron Cheatham and receiver Shaq Washington had his stripe removed by Zach Collaros.

Connecticut: The Huskies have spent time shuffling around players on their offensive line to see who gives them the best fit. The only locks -- tackle Mike Ryan and center Moe Petrus. Everybody else has been shifted.

"We're moving people around, looking at our depth so that guys can play different positions," offensive line coach Mike Foley told the Hartford Courant. "A guy like Gary Bardzak can play both at guard and he can also play center so it gives you that flexibility so you can always get your five best on the field. A guy like Adam Masters who plays tackle but also is playing guard and that allows us, with (tackle) Kevin Friend, to get some work with that first group, move it around and see what our best combination of guys is and really take it from there."

Louisville: Freshman Lorenzo Mauldin has moved from defensive end to tight end. Mauldin was moved to give the Cardinals some bodies at that position because of injuries to Nate Nord and Stephon Ball. Both players are expected to return to practice in the next few days. In another position switch, tight end Jordan Tennyson has moved to defensive end. Receiver Michaelee Harris has been practicing with a soft cast on his thumb, but made a couple of great catches during team work Monday morning.

Pitt: The Panthers are going to go with Ryan Turnley at center and Chris Jacobson at guard, though the two are still competing at center. Coach Todd Graham said during the scrimmage Sunday there were four mishandled snaps, so Turnley has to keep working. Jacobson is getting reps at left guard with the starters and center with the second unit. Graham wants his starting five to play together this week. "We need to get to the point where five guys are repping together constantly as a unit," Graham said. Receiver Cameron Saddler and cornerback K'Waun Williams sat out practice Monday because they were "dinged up." Receiver Devin Street left practice early, but Graham didn't think the injury was serious.

Rutgers: Coach Greg Schiano still wants to see more out of his offensive line, even after an impressive rushing performance in the scrimmage Saturday. "We have to make sure we protect better, continue to protect better. We protected better than we have but not good enough for a game," Schiano said. Running back Jawan Jamison (hamstring) returned to practice but was limited. Meanwhile, receivers Brandon Coleman and Miles Shuler, defensive end Manny Abreu and running back Jeremy Deering all wore non-contact jerseys.

Syracuse: Some injured players have slowly started to make their return to the field for the Orange. Running back Prince-Tyson Gulley and Steve Rene were in full pads Monday. Both should be cleared for full contact soon. Safety Shamarko Thomas also is likely to be back on the field today, and cornerback Keon Lyn could return this weekend. Coach Doug Marrone was asked whether he was worried about any of his injured players being out for the opener Sept. 1. Offensive lineman Sean Hickey is out for the season, but Marrone also is worried about lineman Ian Allport because of the severity of his concussion.

USF: Quarterback B.J. Daniels participated fully in both practices Monday. Fullback Armando Sanchez has moved back to linebacker from fullback. Coach Skip Holtz said the decision to redshirt all the freshmen linebackers played into the decision. Holtz also singled out all the true freshmen he expects to play this season, including defensive tackle Elkino Watson and receivers Andre Davis and Ruben Gonzalez.

West Virginia: Coach Dana Holgorsen has had high praise for young running backs Vernard Roberts, Dustin Garrison, Trey Johnson and Andrew Buie. But the Mountaineers may not necessarily go with a running back by committee approach. Nor are they looking for somebody who is going to be an afterthought to the passing game. Running backs coach Robert Gillespie told the Times West Virginian: "We would like a guy we could strap the team on his back and go,” he said.
The injuries continue to mount for Syracuse as starting strong safety Shamarko Thomas joined the list of players on the sideline, the school announced Thursday night.

Thomas is out until further notice after sustaining a concussion during practice Wednesday. Backup center Ian Allport and freshman offensive tackle Nick Robinson also are out with concussions.

Both starting safeties are now out of full contact drills. Starting free safety Phillip Thomas has a broken jaw. Also on the sideline: reserve offensive guard Nick Lepak (concussion) and linebacker Zack McCarrell (hamstring). Coach Doug Marrone also said offensive guard Jarel Lowery was injured Wednesday and cornerback Keon Lyn was injured Thursday. Both were being evaluated.

Syracuse had nine offensive linemen available to practice Thursday, but Marrone said he was not going to alter his practice routine. He was interested, however, in seeing how his team handles adversity.

"I'm concerned about mental toughness and physical toughness and how do we move forward," Marrone said after practice.
Go to a Syracuse football practice and there's one sound you are bound to hear: the constant chatter coming from Phillip Thomas' mouth.

The junior safety is almost always yakking on the field, whether it's barking out assignments, pumping up his teammates or, yes, even talking a little smack to the opposing offensive players.

"I like to be heard," Thomas says.

[+] EnlargePhillip Thomas
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesPhillip Thomas knows how to keep things light in the Syracuse secondary.
Sometimes his coaches have to tell him to calm down, because Thomas has a tendency to get too emotional. And when he gets excited, his words run together and teammates have a hard time understanding what he's saying.

His motor-mouth style might not be appreciated if Thomas didn't have the actions to back it up. But the Orange happily tolerate Thomas' loquaciousness because of how loudly his play on the field speaks.

He finished third on the team last year with 92 tackles while starting all 13 games at free safety. With Shamarko Thomas injured this spring, he was the only returning starter from the secondary on the practice field, and he felt the need to lead. He did that the only way he knew how: by talking.

"I try to keep everybody up and make sure they smile and have fun," Thomas said. "No downers, just uppers."

That's also a life philosophy for Thomas, who grew up in Miami's rough Liberty City neighborhood. It's an area infested with crime, drugs and violence, but Thomas said he managed to stay away from most of that as a kid.

"Sometimes you see things and you try to run away from it," he said. "You don't want to go toward it because it can hurt you. I've seen a lot of things that have gotten me to this point, and I want to continue to avoid them."

How did a guy from Miami end up at Syracuse? It was a happy coincidence.

Thomas said when he was a senior at Miami's Edison High School, he went to see the movie "The Express," which chronicled former Syracuse running back Ernie Davis' life. Just days after he saw the film, Syracuse defensive coordinator Scott Shafer came to Edison on a recruiting trip. Thomas took that as a sign and committed to the Orange, staying firm as his hometown Hurricanes made a last-minute offer.

Thomas -- whose older brother, Clevan, played cornerback at Florida State -- admits it was difficult at first adjusting to the colder weather in upstate New York.

"That first year was real tough," he said. "But if you make it to the NFL, you might be playing in Green Bay or Chicago. And in the postseason, it's cold all around. So it's an experience to remember."

Syracuse is blessed with experience at the safety position thanks to the Thomases, who are no relation to one another. Phillip and Shamarko first met while playing for Team USA at the 2009 IFAF Junior World Championship before their freshmen years and the two have grown close. They call themselves brothers from another mother.

"We're in the same class, play the same position and have the same last name," Phillip Thomas said. "We want to continue to get even better. We want to be considered the best safety tandem in the Big East."

They might be there already. At the very least, they're worth talking about.